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Shock and Gore: Why Picasso fell in Love with Bullfighting

Spanish-born artist Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973) holds up a statuette of a fighting bull, presented to him by toreadors in appreciation of his art, in the stands at a bullfight at Vallauris, France, 11th August 1955. On the left is Jacqueline Roque (1927 - 1986), who later married Picasso. On the right is French author, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau (1889 - 1963). (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
This file pictured dated 13 October 1971 shows Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France. The town of Guernica will commemorate next 26 April 2007 the 70th anniversary of the 1937 bombing by planes of the German Luftwaffe "Condor Legion" and subordinate Italian Fascists from the Corpo Truppe Volontarie expeditionary force during the Spanish Civil War which resulted in widespread destruction and civilian death.    AFP PHOTO/RALPH GATTI (Photo credit should read RALPH GATTI/AFP/Getty Images)

Bulls and matadors: Spanish painter Pablo Picasso in Mougins, France in October 1971

If all the ways I have been along were marked on a map and joined up with a line, it might represent a Minotaur. PABLO PICASSO

The closest many will get to experience the adrenaline rush of dodging a raging bull is from a safe distance in the Pamplona festival. In Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Heminway’s graphic novel the American author describes the thrills of watching bullfighting in all its gory details but how did  it come to define the artistic canon of one of the greatest painters that ever lived? He and and his courtiers had ringside seats at some of the most sought-after bullring spectacles of that era.

Perhaps the artist’s grandson, Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, will unravel the mystery in Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, curated by Sir John Richardson a close friend and biographer of the artist. The exhibition to be held at the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair examines the intersection of Picasso’s bullfighting imagery with his mythological and biographical compositions of the 1930s. Including works dating from 1889 to 1971, this career-long survey traces Picasso’s engagement with the ancient rituals and narratives of his native MedPicasso, though one of history’s most innovative modernists, was grounded in the traditions of his Spanish heritage. Born in the southern port of Málaga, Spain in 1881, he was a lifelong aficionado of the drama of the bullfight: Matadors, picadors, horses, and bulls were recurring themes and subjects throughout his body of work, from his earliest childhood drawings to some of his final paintings when he died in France in 1973.

In the 1930s, at a time of upheaval and personal strife, Picasso began to create allusive narrative works ripe for Surrealist interpretation, infusing the theatrical combat of the corrida with mythic elements of antiquity. His synthesis of the Minotaur myth, the Spanish cult of the bull, and the intimate details of his private life led to the creation of illustrated books, poetry, set designs, sculpture, ceramics, the celebrated Vollard Suite of prints, and masterpieces such as La Minotauromachie (1935) and even Guernica (1937).

Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (3rd L), his model Jacqueline Roque Hutin (L), French socialite Francine Weisweller (2nd L) and poet Jean Cocteau during a bullfight

Miguel Bose the son of one of Picasso’s favourite bullfighters describes his fascination for matadors; “My father and mother had a very close relationship with Picasso. In some ways for Picasso the bulls were a link with a part of Spanish culture; he was totally fascinated by them. We used to spend our summers in his house in Mougins, and during one of those summers together Picasso and my father came up with the idea for a book titled Toros y Toreros. The text was written by my father, Luis Miguel Dominguín, while Picasso created the illustrations.”

When Picasso returned to live in the Mediterranean after World War II, his work would continue to be steeped in mythology and bullfighting for the remainder of his life. His depictions of Minotaurs and matadors provide a key for biographical and scholarly investigation into an oeuvre Picasso confessed to having created as if keeping a diary. The exhibition aims to examine the proposal Picasso described in the quote above, presenting fresh perspectives on some of his myths and monsters.

Comprised of paintings, drawings, sculpture, prints, ceramics, and a home movie Picasso made in 1929, Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors is presented in an innovative installation designed by the Stirling Prize-winning architecture firm Caruso St. John, and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Richardson, noted Picasso scholars Michael FitzGerald and Gertje Utley, and historian of Greek art and archaeology Clemente Marconi.

Picasso: Minotaurs and Matadors, Gagosian Gallery, 28 April–25 August, 2017, 20 Grosvenor Hill, London W1K 3QD

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